New Windows Phone 8 Features Gun for Apple & Android

Microsoft this morning revealed key new features for the upcoming Windows Phone 8 operating system, including the ability to resize and tweak Live Tiles, one of the flagship features of the Windows Phone operating system. Among other goodies for developers, Windows Phone 8 will include an e-wallet capability and a partially shared code base that makes it easier to quickly port apps between the PC and the phone. Perhaps most importantly, Microsoft also announced new partners who would be building Windows Phone 8 smartphones.

Microsoft executives took the stage in San Francisco to tell a small audience of developers about the Windows Phone 8 Platform Preview, including features that “developers need to know now,” said Terry Myerson, a corporate vice president for Microsoft. Microsoft executives didn’t disclose when Windows Phone 8 would be available to consumers, but promised that the SDK will be available to developers later this summer.

To date, Microsoft’s Windows Phone has been well received by critics, but hasn’t yet managed to make a substantial dent in U.S. smartphone sales, falling to just 4.4% of all U.S. smartphone sales in March, according to comScore. Google’s Android OS, meanwhile, has hovered around 50% of all U.S. smartphone sales, with Apple’s iOS at about 30%. Microsoft staged today’s event to lure additional developers, hoping to boost the ecosystem of hardware and software development that has come to be the essential foundation of smartphones. More than 94,000 Windows Phone apps have been developed, a Microsoft graphic indicated.

Microsoft executives also said that its OEM base for Windows Phone 8 would be expanded to include Nokia, Samsung, Huawei and HTC, all based on next-generation silicon from Qualcomm, across a wide range of prices and hardware capabilities. Windows Phone 8 will be released in 50 languages and 180 countries, Myerson said, calling it the “best lineup” in the company’s history.

Myerson and Joe Belfiore, the Microsoft vice president who is responsible for Windows Phone, unveiled eight platform features for Windows Phone 8 that the company will use to motivate developers. “This is a huge release. This is a huge year” for Microsoft, Belfiore said.

Common Core

The flagship capability is what Microsoft calls “the common core,” a shared set of code between Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 on the desktop that will allow developers to write an app once for Windows 8 and make minimal changes to port it to Windows Phone 8. Apps will share drivers and hardware, including multicore processors.

“Really, it changes what the platform is about,” Belfiore said of the common core. “It’s a platform for software developers and hardware markets and Windows Phone 8. This is a well-tested piece of software, and now that familiarity is on Windows Phone.”

“The net of this, in our opinion: We will see more apps, bigger apps coming faster, and we will see bigger, more beautiful apps running on Windows Phone running faster than ever before,” Belfiore claimed.

At the event, Nokia announced new experiences for its Lumia devices, including PlayTo, a streaming app to DLNA devices. Nokia Counters, meanwhile tracks data usage, and new camera apps will create panoramas and “smart group” shots that can mash up pictures, a Nokia executive said. Nokia also upgraded its Maps apps with the ability to pin a location to the Start page, and a “My Commute” feature to calculate the best commute route.

But Common Core also means that Microsoft will jump to an upgraded code base. Early Windows Phones were based on Windows CE, and the new software will break with that. That means that early Windows Phone adopters will have to buy new, incompatible phones. However, the new Windows 8 phones will be supported for 18 months, Myerson pledged - and Windows Phone 7.5 customers will be upgraded to the new Windows Phone 8 Start Live Tiles experience, Myerson said.

‘We care very deeply for Windows Phone 7.5 customers,“ Myerson said, promising that Microsoft itself would recompile every application inside the Windows Phone app store for Windows Phone 8. Developers won’t be forced to recompile; it will just be done for them. And Visual Studio 7.5 will be upgraded for Windows Phone 8 development, the company said.

Three Primary Display Resolutions

The common core will enable the latest hardware: dual- and multi-core phones, as well as three primary display resolutions: 1280x720, 1280x768 and 800x480. The first resolution is a true 16:9 ratio while the others are 15:9, Belfiore said.

Internet Explorer 10

Microsoft will include the latest and greatest Internet Explorer: IE10. It shares a common rendering engine with Windows 8, Belfiore said, and runs Java four times faster than Windows Phone 7.4 - better than the Samsung Galaxy S III, the HTC One S and the iPhone 4S. Additional features include the SmartScreen antiphishing technology, Belfiore said.

NFC

Windows Phone will also support Near-Field Communications (NFC), the short-range wireless technology used in Google Wallet and other apps. And Belfiore pledged the “most complete wallet experience” on a phone this fall. It will support credit, debit, loyalty and membership cards, allowing access to saved deals and even the “tap to pay” experience that allows a phone to replace a wallet. Microsoft executives showed off a stored Chase app for Windows Phone 8 that will be released in the fall. For more on e-wallets, see Apple’s Opportunity: Disrupt the Credit Card Business.

Microsoft also indicated that its e-wallet philosophy differs from Google’s: To safely allow purchases, the phone must support not just NFC but a secure SIM card to allow information to be stored in the device, rather than the encryption chip Android phones include in the phone hardware itself. Some mobile operators have removed Google Wallet because they want customers to move payment information from phone to phone via the SIM, rather than locking it to the phone hardware itself, Belfiore said.

Belfiore said that the UK’s Orange will be the first carrier to market with secure SIMs. He also referenced ISIS, the carrier coalition between AT&T, Verizon and Sprint. “We expect to have a secure SIM solution with ISIS next year, but not at launch,” Belfiore said.

New Nokia Mapping Technology

Windows Phone will support Nokia’s mapping technology built in. “Windows Phone will have much better detail with the Navteq map data that’s built into Nokia’s map technology,” Belfiore said. Offline map support will also be included - a feature that Google recently promoted - and the map controls will be made available to developers. Nokia will also include turn-by-turn directions in “many countries around the world,” Belfiore said.

Business-Specific Hooks

Windows Phone 8 will also include several business-specific hooks. “Some IT administrators have been somewhat dissatisfied” with Windows Phone 7, Belfiore acknowledged. "We think we have filled those gaps with Windows Phone 8." The hooks include encrypted content and secure boot, the ability to sign applications, and enabling device management with familiar techniques and tools. Finally, it wouldn’t be a Windows Phone without familiar Office apps, Belfiore said.

Adjustable Live Tiles

In what’s being called Windows Phone 8’s sexiest feature, the OS will give users the ability to adjust the size and content of Live Tiles, the widgets on the home page of Windows Phone 8. Users will be able to place sports applications in the foreground in large tiles, for example, or choose to emphasize messages or news. “We know our users really love their phones, and Live Tiles make their phones so special, and so personal,” Belfiore said.

Additional announcements included support for Audible, an audiobooks app for Windows 7.5 that will be available later today, and improved VoIP capabilities that will treat calls made via Skype as just another phone call, and will let them run in the background.